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White House Update: Mideast Policy, Immigration Reform, Federal Debt


How could U.S. policy in the Middle East change following the killing of Osama bin Laden? Could reforming immigration policy be the next goal for President Barack Obama? We speak to NPR White House Correspondent Scott Horsley about the big stories coming out of Washington, D.C. this week.

How could U.S. policy in the Middle East change following the killing of Osama bin Laden? Could reforming immigration policy be the next goal for President Barack Obama? We speak to NPR White House Correspondent Scott Horsley about the big stories coming out of Washington, D.C. this week.


Scott Horsley, White House correspondent for NPR

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CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. After being focused almost exclusively on domestic issues for the last two-year, president Barack Obama as command are in chief is now taking center stage. The White House is announcing the president will give a major speech on Mideast policy just weeks after the killing of Osama bin Laden. But it's still not clear if the president's strength in foreign policy will translate to other issues of it's a pleasure to welcome my guest, NPR White House correspondent, Scott Horsley. Good morning, Scott.

HORSLEY: Good morning, Maureen, first degree to talk to you.

CAVANAUGH: So tell us a lot bit or at least what you know about this speech that the president is expected to give on Mideast policy. What do you think it's gonna focus on about the Mideast?

HORSLEY: Well, that's a very good question, and we're all asking the same thing. And actually we haven't gotten very much guidance of the there's been a suggestion for months now that the president would offer some reflection on what's been called the Arab Spring, the up ridings in Egypt and Libya and other countries in the middle east and north Africa. But the challenge is there is what would he say since the United States' position has been different in each of those different countries? There's been some desire for the president to spell out some sort of all encompassing philosophy that would explain, why, for example, we have demanded that Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi relinquish power but have not said the same about, say, the leader in Syria, who has also been ordering the killing of his own citizens. And the fact of the matter is that foreign policy is a -- is not always consistent of that's true in this administration and others. So there is eye desire for the president to sort of spell out 134 grand philosophy, and one of the relationships there's been, I think, a delay in doing so is that there is perhaps no grand philosophy or if it is, it's a subtle one. So that's one challenge. And then the second piece of the puzzle is what would the president say about the -- Israel, Palestinian situation, which, of course, has dogged him and every other president. And I don't know that the White House is quite figured out an answer to that yet.

CAVANAUGH: Is there a sense that U.S. policy in the region now sort of has to change in the Middle East now that Osama bin Laden has been killed?

HORSLEY: No, I don't think it -- the policy has to change necessarily. The White House has been pretty clear since the announcement of bin Laden's death that -- that the threat of terrorism has not gone away with him. Although, of course, it is considered a very major accomplishment to, you know, get the head of the snake of al Qaeda. I think what the White House would say is that the juxtaposition of bin Laden's death coupled with the success of peaceful prodemocracy demonstrators in countries like Egypt does open the door for a different sort of narrative. And a different sort of relationship between the Arab world and the west. Bin Laden offered one narrative, which was a assistant clash, and the west is the enemy of the Arab street. And the White House sees an opening now for a different narrative to take hold.

CAVANAUGH: Now, we're speaking with change, we were speaking about this expected speech from the president on Mideastern policy. I'm wondering about another change. And that is the perception of president Obama since the killing of bin Laden. How has that changed?

HORSLEY: It's improved. His general poling numbers have enjoyed something of a bounce. No surprise there, obviously. What is sort of interesting is, for example, in a gallop survey which showed that his approval rating is now over 50†percent, that hasn't necessarily translated into much stronger standing against various potential Republican challengers. It's still a long way between now and November of 2012. And I suspect 18†months from now, the memory of bin Laden's killing will have receded somewhat. So when you ask people what do you approve or disapprove of what the way the president's doing his job, more of them now say they approve after the successful raid in Pakistan. But if you ask, you know, how do you feel about Barack Obama against some generic Republican candidate in 2012, he's not very different than where he was before bin Laden was killed. He's leading. But not by a wide margin. What's also interesting is that pollsters asked voters would you prefer, say, Barack Obama or -- and if they fill a name in for the Republican challenger, that is, if you say would you prefer Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, or would you prefer Barack Obama or Newt Gingrich, the [CHECK AUDIO] to be named later. So the generic unanimous Republican is fairing better against the president than any of the actual Republicans who are in the race or expected to get in the race, and that explains why the Republicans keep casting a bout for some additional candidate to enter the race.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We're getting a Washington up indicate from NPR White House correspondent, Scott Horsley. The tracking the president as you do, I know that you know he gave a speech today, at aid Hispanic prayer breakfast this morning. And he repeated some of the themes of a major immigration speech that he gave earlier this week. What are some of those themes?

HORSLEY: Well, that's right. The president gave a big speech in El Paso on the subject of immigration, and there really -- I guess it was notable not for anything particularly new that he said because he didn't really say anything very new. It was notable for the fact that he said it in a fairly public way. They gave a fair amount of build up to the speech. He went to the border where, you know, he was joined by Allen burr son, the border czar, and his home land security secretary, Janet Neapolitano. And his message, though, has been fairly consistent. Which is that he would like to see a broad over haul of the immigration system, but that he can't do it without some support from senate Republicans. And actually, now, senate housemembers, as well. Excuse me, Republican housemembers as well, now that the GOP controls the house. But going back to last year when the Democrats controlled both house, it's always been the case that some GOP was gonna be needed, and right now, that support just isn't there on the Republican side. So the what the president has begun trying to do is urging Hispanic heredes, urging business leaders, urging members of the religious community to do their part to put pressure on Republicans in Congress to show support for a comprehensive reform of the immigration system. And that would include some path to legalization for the millions of undocumented workers who are here now. He's making a sort of interesting economic argument here too. He's suggesting that it's not the presence of 10 or 12 million immigrant, additional immigrants in this country that is having a negative economic effect on other Americans. But rather it's their undocumented status, which makes them ripe for exploitation, depresses their wages, and this far depresses everyone else's wages. Of he suggested if you could bring those folks out of the shadows, they would then demand higher wages and not pose an economic pressure. Not put economic pressure on everybody else. That's a -- that's a reasonable economic argument. But it's a fairly subtle one. And it's kind of tough to translate into a bumper sticker.

CAVANAUGH: I know that a lot of immigrant advocates answer expressed disappointment about president Obama, and his approach to immigration thus far. It's been pretty hard line, especially when it comes to deportations, right?

HORSLEY: Well, he has taken a hard line on deportations, although he has put more of a focus on deporting enough workers that also have some criminal record. There are certainly undocumented workers who are being deported who don't have a criminal background. But much more of the government's emphasis now is going after folks who have gotten in trouble with the law for something other than simply crossing the border. But yes, this administration has put a lot of resources into border enforcement. It's sort of the political reality that they need to show at least a pretty strong commitment to border enforcement. Before they have any hope of getting movement on the other piece of the puzzle, which would be, you know, some path to legalization for undocumented workers of the thing that this administration has done is stepped up enforcement against employers of undocumented workers of that's something that the government has also kind of given lip service to. But we have seen more work place enforcement under the Obama administration, and you know, maybe if that pressure becomes heavy enough, then you do start to see the business community standing up and saying, okay, we need to get Congress to take some action on this. Yoke wee seen it get anywhere near that level of pressure yet the. Yet there's still generally impunity for folks who employ undocumented workers in this country.

CAVANAUGH: Moving onto another sticky topic for the president, and that is the raising of the federal debt limit, house speaker John Boehner kind of through down a gauntlet this week at a speech up in wall street, economic leaders up in wall street. And he basically said, you know, if we're gonna allow the debt ceiling to be raised, there are gonna have to be some real cuts, real spending limitations.

HORSLEY: Yeah, cuts in the trillions, he said, not the billions.

CAVANAUGH: Right. So what is the White House reaction to that?

HORSLEY: Well, the White House has basically said, yeah, that's kind of fine for a starting position, but everyone's gonna have to give some ground here. The White House basic position is we happened that there is a call for action on the deficit. And that is going to require deep spending cuts. But they also say that that should not be attached as a condition of raising the debt ceiling. That the debt ceiling should go up without any preconditions. They sort of treat these as two separate issues.

CAVANAUGH: Why do they do that?

HORSLEY: Well, because the debt ceiling must be raised. Everybody in Washington acknowledges that the debt ceiling must be raised. And because there's not agreement on exactly how to meet the targets of reducing the deficit, they don't want to sort of attach this very contentious deficit reduction challenge to an action which must be taken to preserve the full faith and credit of the government. So what they like is some sort of clean increase in the debt ceiling. What they may have to settle for is some condition, some effort to address the deficit as a condition to raising the debt ceiling. But I don't think they're willing to did as far as John Boehner has suggested, with trillions of dollars in spending cuts. The other thing, of course, the house peeker said is while everything should be on the table, on the expense side of the ledger, tax increases should be off the table. And that's a position which the White House has said is not really realistic.

CAVANAUGH: This federal debt ceiling is a hard kind of issue to sell to the general public. Is there any -- have you heard any ideas from the White House how the president is going to be addressing this issue and when this debate actually could come to a head?

HORSLEY: Well, it's coming to a head now, it's been staying at a low boil for many weeks, the secretary treasurer has said we're basically going to start bumping up against the debt did ceiling next Monday. So the witching hour is upon us. But secretary Geithner has also said that by moving money around and taking various extraordinary measures issue the Treasury department can buy some time for Congress to act. Previously they said we were gonna hit a sort of drop dead date, terms of debt ceiling in early July, then [CHECK AUDIO] tax receipts that be we expected, so we have a little more time now until maybe the beginning of August. So we could conceivably see this drag on until early August or till we get pretty close to that. The White House would very much like to see this resolve before that, and I think so would the financial community. And we've just seen just this week now, a whole consortium of business groups, everyone from the adhesive and sealant council to the Wyoming chamber partnership has written to members of Congress and said, look, let's not may with the country's credit record. Let's get the debt ceiling raised now. So we're starting to see some pressure building from the accident community for lawmakers to act on this. But this could -- because secretary Geithner has kind of extended the time for operating, we could see this thing percolate for a long time. Congress rarely acts until it their back is against the wall.

CAVANAUGH: Scott, I know you have to go. Thanks for spending some time with us this morning.

HORSLEY: It's my pleasure, Maureen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's NPR White House correspondent, Scott Horsley, and if you would like to comment, please go on-line, Days. Coming up, San Diego's DA takes legal action against a controversial commutation. That's as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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